Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mariano Herran Salvatti, Former Mexican Drug Tsar and Chiapas Attorney General, Arrested

Herran Salvatti boasts a public service career allegedly filled with embezzlement, drug money, human rights violations, and impunity

On January 24, the Chiapas state government arrested former federal drug tsar Mariano Herran Salvatti for embezzlement. Additional charges and accusations--ranging from links to drug cartels to torture of political prisoners--continue to pile up.

Another Drug Tsar on the Sinaloa Cartel Payroll?

When the Mexican federal government arrested drug tsar Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo in 1997 for his ties to the Juarez cartel, it needed a trustworthy, incorruptible man to take his place. It chose Mariano Herran Salvatti. Then-Attorney General Jorge Madrazo told the press that Herran Salvatti had been rigorously vetted, passing drug, character, and lie detector tests, as well as a review of his finances. The US Embassy, the DEA, and then-drug tsar for the US, Barry McCaffrey, reportedly blessed the nomination.

Wishing to turn over a new leaf, the Mexican government closed the anti-drug agency Guiterrez Rebollo led, the National Institute for Combating Drugs (INCD), and opened a new agency under Herran Salvatti: the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Health (FEADS). During the three short years Herran Salvatti ran FEADS, it too became mired in corruption scandals.

Shortly after Herran Salvatti left his post at FEADS in 2000, Mexico’s daily El Universal reported[1] that officials from the German Embassy in Mexico accused Herran Salvatti, the late Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos[2], and Jorge Espejel Contreras, of embezzling USD$750,000. The German Embassy gave FEADS the money while Herran Salvatti was at its helm in order to purchase “interception equipment” to combat drug trafficking. Embassy officials Federic Koch and Stephan Koop told El Universal that the piece of equipment the FEADS officials claimed they purchased with the money was worn out and obviously used.

Herran Salvatti’s name has also come up in Operation Clean-Up, the Mexican government’s latest purge of officials allegedly on cartels’ payrolls. Mexico’s weekly national magazine Proceso reports that Roberto Garcia Garcia, a former soldier from the Mexican military's High Command Special Forces Airmobile Group who was also caught in Operation Clean-Up but turned state’s witness, has testified that Beltran Leyva operative Jose Antonio Cueto Lopez[3] told him that high-ranking Sinaloa cartel operative Rey Zambada Garcia[4] gave FEADS administrative coordinator Hiram Gonzalez money, part of which was to be used to pay Herran Salvatti.

Proceso also reports that Herran Salvatti and then-Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar were the first to incorporate the military into the war on drugs. In 1997, the two requested that soldiers from the military’s High Command Special Forces Airmobile Group be assigned to FEADS to help the agency in its fight against drug trafficking. Famously, a significant number of these elite US-trained soldiers deserted their FEADS assignments and formed Los Zetas to become the Gulf cartel’s private military. Seemingly concerned about possible connections between Los Zetas and Herran Salvatti, the Chiapas government installed police checkpoints around the state following the arrest “as a preventative action, because an attack by Los Zetas is feared,” reports Excelsior.

FEADS closed in January 2003 when the military raided its offices in response to widespread corruption; the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO) took its place in August of that year and continues to be the nation’s main anti-drug agency.

While the accuracy of some of Operation Clean-Up’s depositions are in question, Chiapas District Attorney Luis Alberto Martínez Medina says he’s found hard evidence of Herran Salvatti’s relationship with organized crime. On January 31, the district attorney obtained and verified the authenticity of a 22-page document hand-written by Herran Salvatti from his Chiapas prison cell and sent to his brother, Oscar Herran Salvatti. The document reportedly solicits help from government officials, ex-officials, businessmen, journalists, ex-governors, religious leaders, and family members to negotiate his release and help him economically.

The document also has a message for people whom the Chiapas Attorney General’s Office refers to as “suspected members of organized crime.” In the document, Herran Salvatti sends a message to ex-commissioner of the Federal Judicial Police (the federal police department that was shut down in 2002 due to pervasive corruption related to organized crime) to “tell your friends that I am selling them my soul, knowledge, wisdom, and contacts in exchange for being out [of jail]; they are familiar with how.” The attorney general’s office says the document was found during a raid on one of Herran Salvatti’s properties. It says that it will open another investigation into “the suspected crime of attempted escape from prison, criminal association, and whatever else arises” from the information gleaned from the document.

Embezzlement in Chiapas

Despite Herran Salvatti’s appearance in Operation Clean-Up depositions, the federal government has thus far not made any moves to arrest him. It was the Chiapas state government who put Herran Salvatti behind bars last week and began raids on his estimated forty properties.

Herran Salvatti, a Chiapas native, stands accused of illegal exercise of public service, embezzlement, malfeasance, misuse of funds, and conspiracy against the state patrimony. The conspiracy charge makes Herran Salvatti ineligible for bail. The accusations stem from multiple incidents that occurred while Herran Salvatti served as Chiapas State Attorney General and later as the state’s Minister of Economy.

The Chiapas government originally arrested Herran Salvatti for embezzling six million pesos (approximately USD$408,000) from a local business development fund during his seven-month stint as Minister of Economy in late 2007 and 2008. Herran Salvatti allegedly wrote himself 2 million peso checks.

Herran Salvatti was fired from the Ministry of Economy on June 5, 2008, over another embezzlement scandal. $170 million pesos (about eleven million dollars) from Chiapas’ “Fund Against Organized Crime” went unaccounted for under his watch as State Attorney General during 2000-2007. The state reports that its investigation revealed a lack of documentation proving and justifying expenditures, inappropriate expenses, and failure to comply with acquisitions regulations. Herran Salvatti’s finance coordinator in the attorney general’s office, Gabriel Salcedo Torres, was detained after the state congress discovered the discrepancy during an audit. Herran Salvatti had managed to stay out of prison up until now thanks to a court injunction.

Luxury and Guns

The Chiapas government says that Herran Salvatti owns forty properties around the country—so many, in fact, that it still hasn’t raided all of them. The government has not explained how it can protect and guarantee the integrity of any evidence that might be found in the remaining properties.

The properties the government has raided thus far have painted a picture of extreme wealth. In just one of Herran Salvatti’s ranches, investigators found twenty thoroughbred horses valued between thirty and forty thousand dollars apiece. In his other properties they recovered receipts for 23 automobiles and diamond-encrusted jewelry. Herran Salvatti also owns a rodeo arena, a private zoo with endangered species, a shooting range with moving targets.

The police also found nineteen firearms in multiple Herran Salvatti properties, including unregistered weapons and weapons that are designated under Mexican law as exclusively for military use. The illegal weapons are: a 9mm Intratek submachine gun, a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol, and an FMJ .45 caliber pistol. Possession of these weapons is a federal crime. The Chiapas Attorney General’s Office says that a federal prosecutor will likely charge Herran Salvatti with the crimes of arms dealing and possession of weapons and explosives.

Political Prisoners

The long list of Herran Salvatti’s alleged misdeeds doesn’t end at embezzlement, supporting drug cartels, and unlawful firearms possession. In 2008, the Chiapas state government released over 140 political prisoners after reviewing their cases.[5] Many of them were imprisoned while Herran Salvatti was attorney general. Herran Salvatti is not currently facing charges related to the many human rights abuses that occurred in Chiapas under his watch, but the accusations and evidence against him are overwhelming.

While Herran Salvatti did not directly intervene in many of these cases, Frayba director Diego Cadenas Gordillo points out that the former attorney general can be held legally responsible for the injustices if they are due to his “action or omission [failure to act].” In some cases, Herran Salvatti is accused of actively participating in the violation of the suspects’ human rights. In other cases, Herran Salvatti did not directly oversee the miscarriages of justice, but he did nothing to intervene when his office violated citizens’ human rights. Either way, Cadenas Gordillo says, Herran Salvatti is responsible under criminal law.

Some of the many accusations against Herran Salvatti accuse him in directly and actively participating in human rights abuses. Former political prisoner Julio César Pérez Ruiz, who was accused of murdering former Chiapas governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia’s godmother, says Herran Salvatti was present while authorities tortured him. Pérez Ruiz was released for lack of evidence after serving six years of his sentence. Jose Pérez Pérez, another political prisoner who is serving a 32-year sentence for homicide, makes the same claim.

Herran Salvatti also allegedly fabricated evidence to repress social movements. In 2003, normalistas (students training to teach in rural schools) from the Normal Teneria in Mexico State traveled to Chiapas in solidarity with the Normal Mactumactza to protest the lack of available teaching positions for the Chiapan normalistas after graduation. The driver of the bus transporting the Teneria normalistas was shot and killed during the protest. The students say a Dodge Ram stopped alongside the bus and shot the driver. While ballistics tests determined the gunshot entered the bus from outside, Herran Salvatti held a press conference saying the driver had been shot from inside the bus, and that the students had shot him. “He did this with the goal of criminalizing protest,” Cadenas Gordillo says.

Herran Salvatti also implemented policies that led to human rights abuses. Frayba, for example, has long criticized the practice of arraigo, or a form of administrative detention that places a detainee who has not yet been convicted of a crime under travel restrictions or house arrest, or the detainee is held in what is known as a “security house” while the case is investigated.[6] Cadenas Gordillo points out that Herran Salvatti abused arraigo, preferring to keep detainees in security houses rather than under house arrest. There, detainees were “isolated from their families, isolated from their lawyers, surrounded by police. We have testimony from people who say they were physically and psychologically tortured during arraigo,” says Cadenas Gordillo. “They’re under constant pressure in order to break their spirit. Many confessions have came out after long periods of detention under arraigo. Cadenas Gordillo says the practice of abusing arraigo is something Herran Salvatti was known for during his term as federal drug tsar, and that he brought it with him to Chiapas when he became the state’s attorney general.

In other cases, Herran Salvatti did nothing to intervene when human rights organizations and the media brought travesties of justice to his attention. Under Herran Sarvatti, the district attorney’s office, which is part of the attorney general’s office and answers to the attorney general, often put indigenous defendants on trial without interpreters or lawyers. Frayba has documented numerous cases of indigenous detainees being tortured or mistreated while in the district attorney’s custody. “Detainees would state to judges that they were tortured by the district attorney, and neither the judge nor the district attorney would carry out an investigation,” Cadenas Gordillo says.

Herran Salvatti’s office’s eventually imprisoned so many political dissidents that it sparked a statewide movement for the freedom of political prisoners—a movement initiated and organized from within the prisons and led by prisoners themselves. On January 28, 2003, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants falsely accusing Paraje Tres Cruces residents Candelario Heredia Hernández, Pascual Heredia y Enrique Hernández Hernández of murdering two people. Cadenas Gordillo says they were political dissidents from the community. The local government—run by the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), of which Herran Salvatti was also a member—accused the men of homicide, and Herran Salvatti’s office issued the warrants without further investigation.

In order to execute the arrest warrants, the Attorney General’s Office carried out a poorly planned operation that included agents from the State Investigation Agency (the AEI which is the Attorney General’s police force), local police, and civilians from the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Indigenous Justice. The local PRI members told the Attorney General’s Office that Zapatistas were present in the community, leading the officials planning the operation to utilize a disproportionate number of agents who were heavily armed, and excessive force.

Witnesses say that the police surrounded a house in Tres Cruces. One nervous police officer’s gun went off, causing the other police to open fire. Because they had formed a circle around the house, their bullets struck other officers who were positioned on the other side of the house.

Five people died in the operation: Gregorio Heredia Hernández, a young town resident, and four police officers who were killed by their colleagues’ crossfire. Residents Candelario Heredia Hernández, Pascual Heredia Hernández, Mariano Heredia Gómez, Enrique Hernández Hernández, and Zacario Hernández were blamed for the deaths. During the subsequent investigation, officials excluded some evidence, including a re-enactment of the incident. Frayba requested permission to visit the scene of the crime to investigate, but local officials denied the request, and the state district attorney’s office upheld that decision. All of the defendants except Candelario were imprisoned.

In a statement released on the sixth anniversary of the massacre, Frayba states: “The Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Indigenous Justice, which at that time was headed by Isidro Gomez Entzin and answered to Herran Salvatti’s State Attorney General’s Office, was who ordered the operation and altered the evidence against the indigenous Tsotsiles in order to cover up these crimes with the cover of impunity.” Cadenas Gordillo elaborates: “From the decision to plan the operation to when the district attorney concluded the investigation, Mariano Herran Salvatti had to know about it. And he had to have said how things would be done.”

On February 12, 2008, Zacario Hernandez declared a hunger strike to demand his freedom. Almost forty other prisoners from jails around the state joined him, declaring, “Dead or alive, they will release us from prison because we don’t belong here.” Others fasted and set up protest encampments inside the prisons. As a result of the protests both within and outside of the prisons, over 140 prisoners were released, including Hernandez and his co-defendants. Herran Salvatti had imprisoned many of them.

Following the prisoners’ release, the Chiapas state congress called upon Herran Salvatti to testify during an investigation of systemic “irregularities” that resulted in their unjust imprisonment. At the time, Chiapas Minister of Justice Amador Rodríguez Lozano told the press that “sooner or later” the law would catch up with those who sent many innocent people to jail by fabricating evidence. Nothing came of the investigation.

Many of the political prisoners Herran Salvatti jailed are still being held in El Amate, the Chiapas prison where Herran Salvatti currently resides. El Amate is where the successful prisoner hunger strike began, and it is the home of the strongest political prisoner movement in the state. Prison officials are holding Herran Salvatti in a special area of the prison away from general population for fear that the people he falsely imprisoned (and who have endured severe beatings during their prison terms, both at the hands of prison guards as well as prisoners who work for prison authorities) might exact revenge.

The El Amate political prisoners, however, don’t appear to be interested in revenge. They want justice and freedom. In an open letter following Herran Salvatti’s arrest, the prisoners state: “We declare that not only should he [Herran Salvatti] be investigated and tried for the crimes he committed in the Ministry of Economy such as illicit enrichment and embezzlement; he should also be investigated and tried for all of the acts of humiliation and arbitrary detentions he committed when he was the state’s attorney general. The way we see it, the most important thing is that justice be done for all of us who were imprisoned and who have been charged with made-up crimes, and where his prosecutors and district attorneys who, under his orders, invented our crimes and put together the dossiers which are now the basis for keeping us here kidnapped, and many already sentenced.”

Not Just Another Bad Apple: It’s a “Vicious Cycle”

Despite the numerous accusations of human rights violations (Proceso writes “hundreds”) Cadenas Gordillo stresses that Herran Salvatti was not the worst attorney general Chiapas has ever seen; he unfortunately wasn’t even out of the ordinary by Chiapas standards. “There have always been human rights violations, the attorney generals have always used the law to punish dissidence.”

Current governor Juan Sabines, who imprisoned Herran Salvatti on January 24 and freed over 140 political prisoners in 2008, is not extraordinary either. “[Former governor] Pablo Salazar[7], for example, freed over one hundred political prisoners at the beginning of his term. Many of them were self-identified as members of the EZLN. Herran Salvatti was present when they were released and almost certainly helped find the legal instruments necessary to free them. It appeared to be an act of good will. [But] it’s part of a vicious cycle. There are laws…that exist in order to free the previous administration’s political prisoners. Freeing political prisoners gives the administration the opportunity to negotiate with the prisoners’ organizations, and in many cases to subjugate them. The government uses this to maintain its power.”

Cadenas Gordillo argues that under the human rights rubric, former governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia and Chiapas state legislators can be held “objectively responsible” for having nominated and ratified Herran Salvatti as attorney general. “If Pablo Salazar and the [state] congress were aware of criminal human rights violations committed by Herran Salvatti, and if they had done something to stop those violations or crimes when they were being committed or in a timely manner, they wouldn’t have been responsible for those crimes and all of the others that he committed afterwards.” Cadenas Gordillo says Salazar and the state legislators can’t claim they weren’t aware of Herran Salvatti’s alleged crimes: “Many of the human rights violations and crimes that Herran Salvatti committed were made public…in the media. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center has always publicly decried the human rights violations and abuse of authority that have occurred over the course of various administrations—not just those committed under Pablo Salazar and Herran Salvatti.”

While Herran Salvatti’s crimes are not extraordinary by Chiapas standards, an investigation into the human rights abuses he committed are not likely to go beyond his former boss, Gov. Salazar—and it may not even reach that far. Cadenas Gordillo points to a legal loophole that may shield other politicians from going down with Herran Salvatti for “objective responsibility” for his actions.

In Mexico, re-elections and multiple terms are extremely rare and almost always prohibited by law. In Chiapas, Salazar attempted to maintain his power even after he was out of office. Before leaving office, Salazar changed the laws governing the Attorney General’s Office in order to allow multiple terms for Attorney Generals and to give the Attorney General’s Office autonomy from the governor—meaning that the governor was no longer legally responsible for Herran Salvatti’s policies and actions. Salazar’s successor, current governor Juan Sabines, inherited both Herran Salvatti and indemnity for his actions.


[1] Miguel Badillo, El Universal, November 25, 2000. Cited in Ricardo Revalo, Proceso #1683.

[2] Vasconcelos died along with Minister of the Interior Juan Camilo Mouriño in an airplane crash in Mexico City’s financial district on November 4, 2008. The government has ruled the crash an accident due to pilot error.

[3] Cueto is a former federal police officer who later allegedly became the Beltran Leyva organization’s recruiter of and link to officials in the Federal Attorney General’s Office

[4] Rey Zambada Garcia is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s brother. “El Mayo” is one of the leading drug barons in the Sinaloa cartel.

[5] While the government says the reviews found irregularities, injustices, and insufficient or fabricated evidence that were substantial enough to overrule the prisoners’ convictions, the government released the prisoners on parole rather than exonerating them outright. This obligated the indigenous prisoners to travel from their communities to the Chiapas capital every week to fulfill parole requirements.

[6] Arraigo has long been criticized by national and international human rights organizations as an instrument that violates due process. A Mexican court declared arraigo unconstitutional. However, while the recent judicial reform that intensified Mexico’s two-track legal system technically did away with arraigo for most crimes, it maintains the practice in cases that involve organized crime. Mexico’s broad definition of organized crime and its pervasive drug war have kept arraigo a fairly common practice despite the reform.

[7] Salazar appointed Herran Salvatti to the Attorney General’s Office.

From Narco News:


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